New media's new political landscape | St. Louis Public Radio

New media's new political landscape

May 9, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When Caitlin Ellis wants to know what Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton has to say about the economy, the war or the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, for that matter, she doesn't tune into CNN or wait for the evening network news. Instead, she's more likely to get her version of the truth by tapping into some of the so-called new media on the Web, such as YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace.

Facebook and MySpace are social networking websites, while YouTube provides users with an easy way to upload videos and share them through the Internet. These devices weren't created with politics in mind, but they all have become powerful tools to help young people in particular talk about the elections and expose friends and strangers to new viewpoints on political issues.

Ellis, president of the Mizzou College Democrats, is typical of students who are embracing web sites that have helped make politics a growth industry. Millions of youngsters who otherwise might not give a political candidate or issue a second thought are motivated to get involved after being exposed to candidates and issues in engaging ways on sites like YouTube and MySpace.

Candidates have also used new media to reach different groups of voters or to humanize themselves. In an effort to reach younger voters, for example, Meghan McCain, the daughter of Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, created her own blog: www.mccainblogette.com. Loose and informal, Meghan talks about topics such as the quality of the snacks in TV green rooms where guests wait before their appearances on TV talk shows.

"Yes We Can"

Consider these examples of marketing candidates through new media: Take a look at the popular YouTube "Yes We Can" video by Will.I.Am and other celebrities. Their upbeat call-and-response lyrics serve as a chorus between takes of a well-cadenced speech by Obama. The performance is powerful enough to energize a couch potato. Or take the case of Leah Kauffman, a 21-year-old Temple University student who is getting plenty of Internet hits and wooing viewers to her favorite candidate with her catchy song, "I Got a Crush on Obama."

Entertainment is only one way the new media are waking up young people to political issues. When the proposed state constitutional amendment with the name "civil rights" in its title began to pick up steam, Ellis, the Mizzou College Democrats president, got busy on Facebook, alerting friends and others that she felt the measure was a sham because it would strike down affirmative action laws that benefit women and minorities. She can't say whether her efforts made a difference, but the proposal died because organizers failed to collect enough signatures to put it on the November ballot.

"That's what I like about Facebook," Ellis says. "True, it allows young people to keep in touch with friends. But it also allows people people to tune in and really find out what's happening.

"When the civil rights initiative came along," Ellis said, "Facebook gave us an easy way to talk about issues and create and announce events against it."

Traditional Media Trusted Less

Traditional media still play a major role in politics, says Matt Adler, a young Democratic convention delegate and Obama supporter. But he says some young people distrust the traditional media's message because it is often sensational.

"In this way, alternative media have helped Obama with an issue like Rev. Wright," he says. "Alternative media helped people understand the complexity of an African-American church. That's why I think this new technology is helping people not only understand issues involving Obama but helping us address all kinds of issues."

He mentions, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. "You cannot understand it in a 30-second clip," he says. "Alternatives like Facebook, blogs and emails have raised the level of discussion and, hopefully, will make people search on line for more information about the conflict."

There lies one of the flaws of the new media, says David Kimball, an associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

"What we tend to find is that websites can increase activity in politics and lead to more voter turnout, but they don't change minds," he says.

For Obama and other candidates, alternative media also offer more chances for political gaffes, he says, because information isn't always edited. On the other hand, alternative media offer candidates access they otherwise wouldn't have to certain groups, particularly young people.

Material Isn't Always Accurate

While the new media have helped candidates like Obama reach young voters, Kimball says some of the material disseminated through the technology isn't always carefully edited and as truthful as traditional media. Moreover, he says, the sites tend to reinforce the preconceived views of those visiting the sites.

"This tends to harden views. People don't have to think, don't have to question why they believe what they believe, and it makes them less understanding of opposing views," he says.

Accurate or not, alternative media have changed the political landscape since George W. Bush won his second term. By last spring, Obama videos had been viewed on YouTube at least 33 million times, and millions of people routinely record and upload videos to YouTube each day.

Brian Roach, a University of Missouri student and communications director for Young Democrats of Missouri, says the Internet and systems like Facebook have helped young people get involved in a range of political issues in a convenient way.

"I can't predict the future," he says, "but this shows the edge that the Internet has given to politics."

YouTube links

Check out John McCain's response to the "age" question from a high school student.

Remember Hillary Clinton's take on "The Sopranos"? 

A pro McCain song that rocks -- until you remember the tag word of the original song 

Barack dances with Ellen

See how the candidates are taking advantage of social networking:

Barack Obama

Facebook

MySpace

YouTube

Twitter

Hillary Clinton

Facebook

MySpace

YouTube

Twitter

John Mccain

Facebook

MySpace

YouTube

Twitter*

* John McCain does not have an official Twitter feed.